5 ways to get better at forgiveness in your relationship

Forgiveness can be HARD. It requires great maturity, understanding and empathy. Marriage therapist Joanne Wilson shares her tips for forgiveness that you (and we) might find oh-so useful. 

Do you ever wonder why people who experience incredible adversity come out the other end joyful and kind? It seems one key difference in these individuals is their inclination to forgive. Whether they choose to forgive themselves or their perpetrators has a great deal to do with what follows in their lives. Those that choose anger and hold their grudges seem bitter and tortured their whole lives.

The decision not to forgive can be toxic – both to yourself and to your relationship. By the time couples are finally sitting in front of me in my practice, they are sick of fighting. They’ve been on the ‘he-said-she-said’ and the ‘you-did-this, no-I-didn’t’ rides for a long time and now they desperately want to get off.

It is a lonely ride and they have generally been trapped in pain and isolation for long periods. Sound familiar? If it does, it might be time to work on your ability to forgive.

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Forgiveness is a choice

Forgiveness is a choice, an act of your free will. I am fascinated by the numerous studies that have shown that when we don’t forgive and then later revisit our memories of the supposed wrongdoing, a fear response is produced in our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for our emotions). This response causes a release of stress hormones, which increases our heart rate and blood pressure.

If we keep holding on to our betrayals and anger, the fear response remains active, putting us at risk of developing stress-related illness both mentally and physically.Refusing to forgive allows the perceived wrongdoer the ability to live rent-free in our head for far too long, while we lie awake at night ruminating.

One thing for sure is that again and again, I notice couples trapped in the vice of unforgiveness for many years longer than is necessary. Having said that, forgiving others is not easy. I assure you; many clients have attempted to hurl my ‘How to Forgive’ worksheet back in my face over the years. Just like any other new or difficult task, you need to learn how to do it with repetition and consistency. I passionately believe forgiveness is necessary for the sake of your emotional wellbeing, as well as that of your partner.

If you struggle to forgive, these five tips may help…

Slow it down

Ensure you are not in a heightened emotional state. Allow 20 minutes for your heart rate to slow down, then ask yourself these questions to gain a clearer perspective: How is s/he feeling right now? Are they justified in their actions? What is my part in this? Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is no easy task—especially when it comes to your spouse.

Switch off the nasty voice

We all have an inner voice, and sometimes it doesn’t play nicely. When we fight, its critical nature comes to the fore, spewing forth things like, he’s trying to manipulate you, or, she’s twisting your words again, or, just ignore him, you’ll feel better that way. All of this is counter-productive to forgiveness. In the heat of emotion, replacing these statements with kind and respectful self-talk such as ‘This is his best attempt at coping.’ or ‘This is temporary and we can resolve this.’ is paramount to moving forward and playing fairly.

Actively make the decision to forgive

Rather than holding on to all the little things your partner has done (I know you know what I mean—we all have a vast catalogue of wrongdoings stored in our brain!) you must begin that choice to leave it behind you. You will have conflict; that is human nature. But choose not to hold onto the upsets. Work through the current issue by listening and validating and grow together from it.

Ditch the baggage

Whether you like it or not, your childhood and parent/carer relationship role models play a big part in the relationship you have with your partner. Perhaps you had a parent who used silence to let you know they were angry. Consequently, each time your partner is quiet, you find yourself wondering, what have I done? Your partner, on the other hand, may just be tired and having a quiet moment. Work out where your fear stems from, put it into context and evaluate your behaviour from this logical, rational standpoint.

Who will win? (Noone)

When you’re in the thick of an argument, it’s very hard to ‘see the forest for the trees’. You lose track of the goal of being on the same side (a tenet of any good partnership) because you’re so concerned with winning. But for you to win, your partner needs to lose. Is this the outcome you truly want? Every day, shift your focus from what you don’t like to what you do like! What you focus on attracts more of the same. Express gratitude three times a day to your partner. Anything counts, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. You’ll marvel at how this new positivity and acknowledgment shifts the energy of your relationship. Set yourself the goal of cooperation and make a commitment to flexing your forgiveness muscle and start to watch your relationship pump with synergy.

Joanne Wilson AKA the Relationship Rejuvenator is a neuropsychotherapist, marriage therapist and author. This article is an edited extract from her book, Renovate Your Relationship – All The DIY Tools For Your Most Important Project ($29.99).

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